The Arlington Transit Advisory Committee does not support articulated buses over an electric streetcar system along Columbia Pike. The committee voted six to five last night against a resolution that supported the bus service, rather than an electric streetcar that the county management favors. We reported last week that this vote was coming.
“By bypassing this [the streetcar], we may be missing a long-sighted opportunity that the county has, for a limited amount of time,” said committee chair John Carten.
However, bus proponents cite studies that show the articulated bus plan is more cost effective to build and maintain than streetcars. Streetcar capital costs are over $250 million compared to $39 to $68 million for an articulated bus service, according to county documents. The $250 million price tag would be paid for with a special business tax.
Annual operating costs for the streetcar are also $3.5 million higher than the $22.1 million estimated for articulated buses, according to the "Alternative Analysis/Environmental Assessment" report written by the county government.
For some committee members the high cost is outweighed by the streetcar’s potential for economic growth along the Pike.
“As a resident of northern Arlington I am willing to pay the cost even though I do not benefit from it directly,” said committee member Franz Gimmler. “The outcome is worth the anticipated cost.”
Other members said that rail cars are proven to revitalize neighborhoods.
“I’ve been to Portland and I’ve been to Seattle. I’ve seen the streetcars work there and I’ve seen the neighborhoods revitalized,” said Carten.
Some committee members questioned the streetcar’s susceptibility to inclement weather and traffic. Ice, wind and snow can bring down streetcar wires, said committee member John Antonelli. One parked car in the wrong spot can also stop the streetcar until the car is removed, he said.
“The articulated bus won’t have all of the strictures of steel wheels on steel rail. It can move around things. It can give you the same benefits for a whole lot cheaper,” Antonelli said.
He said that if the streetcar were to have its own lane he would support it.
Articulated buses are longer than average size buses and usually feature three to four doors where passengers can get off. The extra doorways shorten the time needed to load and unload passengers per bus stop. This speed makes the bus about as fast as the streetcar.
However, county staff has said the only way to make that speed work is to have “off-board fare collection,” that is to have people pay before they get to the bus doors.